Last year we were treated to a film called La La Land where a heightened and magical version of Los Angeles was given to us, now thanks to Netflix we get another magical version of the City of Angels only this time the magic is more overt and the themes are mean spirited and cynical. Using science fiction or fantasy as a lens through which to look and examine the problems of today is nothing new, that was practically the bread and butter of the original Star Trek, but with Netflix’s Bright, there is not one ounce of subtlety to be found.
With this big-budgeted entry director David Ayer and writer Max Landis bring us an alternates world where Elves, Orcs and other magical creatures having been living alongside humans for centuries, and as premises go that one is pretty solid but it’s what’s done with the setting that is the key problem here as the premise the plot and the “message” are meshed together rather poorly. Early on in the film, we see jaded street cop Daryl Ward (Will Smith) killing a fairy, who had been pilfering from his wife’s bird feeder, and Ward spouts off the tone-deaf line to his gangbanger neighbours, “Fairy lives don’t matter.” Is this film going to tackle the systemic racism that plagues our world today? We’ve certainly had many good movies with that theme, District 9 for example, and one could see that Bright is taking several pages from other films such as Alien Nation as Ward is teamed up with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), an Orc placed with him as a partner due to some political diversity movement, but Bright does nothing but point out that racism exists and then races off on its action-packed gun battle/quest to keep a magic wand away from the villain.
Someone should have informed Ayers and Landis that if you are going to make a “message picture” that maybe you should actually include a message. Scenes such as the one where a group of police officers are brutally beating an orc, while five feet away Ward questions Jakoby’s loyalty to the police force over his own people creates utter confusion, leaving us wondering if this film is actually pro-police brutality or not. The movie tries to paint Will Smith’s character as a conflicted racist but because he is Will Smith, and you don’t dare cast him as an actual asshole, his role is basically a carbon copy of his wise-cracking disgruntled cop from I, Robot. It certainly would have helped if it didn’t depict every Los Angeles cop from the desk sergeants to Internal Affairs bureaucrats to Ward’s fellow officers as being all fucking evil. There is no doubt that racist cops can be found all across America but this film paints a broad stroke across the whole lot of them with only one Latino State cop being shown as not corrupt or a complete asshat.
Yet racism isn’t actually what this film is about, that’s just the tasteless backdrop Ayes and Landis set their movie in, Bright owes more to films like Walter Hill’s The Warriors and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York than it does District 9 or Alien Nation as at its heart it is about a small group fighting their way from Point “A” to Point “B” with numerous factions trying to stop or kill them along the way. Whether they are gangbanging Orcs or a fringe Elf group who wish the return of The Dark Lord it’s all just a bunch of noise as our “heroes” trade clichéd banter and gunfire for the film’s two-hour running time. And as for the action, and we do get a lot of action sequences, well there is no suspense or tension during these battles because Ward and Jakoby pull the “Hero Death Exemption” card so many times one has to wonder if they have an actual Angel looking over them. We see evil Elf Leilah (Noomi Rapace) and her two cohorts cut through dozens of Orc gangbangers and SWAT teams, taking them out in mere seconds, but when they are up against Ward and Jakoby all of sudden their super Elf Kung Fu isn’t up to snuff.
Turns out that there are beings known as “Brights” who are the only ones capable of wielding a magic wand, devices that are described as basically a magical equivalent of a nuclear bomb, and when one of these wands shows up in the Barrio all sorts of villains come running to claim it. Could the waifish Elf Tikka (Lucy Fry) be such a being? What about Ward or Jakoby? Is one of them a Bright or possibly the one destined to fulfill a prophecy to unite the races against the returning Dark Lord?
One major plot element that made no fucking sense to me was that if these magic wands are supposedly so rare and insanely powerful, and that “Brights” are the rare people who can hold one without exploding, why would Elf Leilah hand her wand over to her assassin so that she can run down and kill the rogue Elf Tikka? We are to believe this super possessive “I will kill hundreds of people to get my wand back!” Elf badass just handed her wand over to a lackey who could very well just keep it for herself. That seems like a really dumb idea. Hell, if these wands are so powerful why couldn’t Leilah just use it to kill Tikka from a distance? Why go through all the bullshit of handing over a magical nuclear weapon to an assassin?
The one saving grace the film has is Joel Edgerton, unrecognizable under an amazing make-up job, as the Orc who dreamed his whole life of being a police officer but has since had to deal with hatred from both his own race and the cops is pretty powerful stuff, and could have made for an interesting film if that had been the crux of the film, but unfortunately, this is a Will Smith film and that was not to be. Edgerton is simply great in this role and if the film had ditched the Will Smith character, and maybe also loses the whole search for the magic wand crap, we could have got a solid film out of it, but instead we have a generic action film that insults our intelligence whenever it slows down to preach.
• We are told that two thousand years ago the Orcs followed the Dark Lord and have been paying for that mistake ever since, certainly would have been nice to see a Lord of the Rings-type prologue of this.
• The Elves in this world are the One Percenters who live in gated communities but the film doesn’t have time to explore the why or how that came to be.
• There is a nice wide shot of the city that shows a dragon flying across the sky, and now this looked cool but only raised more questions about this world. Are dragons in this world intelligent and if so how what role in society do they fit in? Or are they wild animals that some federal agency has to hunt?
• With this film and Victor Frankenstein one may want to advise Max Landis to give science fiction fantasy a rest for a while.
• Many blame studio interference for why Suicide Squad failed but this is the second David Ayer’s film that sucked, so one must start looking harder at the man at the helm.
• Back in 1991 HBO gave us Cast a Deadly Spell which premised a world where magic existed in an alternate 1948 Los Angeles, a much better film at a tenth the budget.
With Bright Netflix tries to compete with the other studios in the big budgeted action genre and though it does have some nice action set pieces it fails to do anything with them in a film that spent no time on worldbuilding.